Jessie Ware proudly wears her influences—Sade, Whitney Houston, Prince, and any number of ’80s and ’90s R&B belters—on her sleeve. But her many strengths as a songwriter and singer outweigh any possible charges of imitation, and her willingness to apply subtlety, make unexpected choices, and take risks are what make Ware such a unique presence.
That risk-taking is what makes Tough Love a more than worthy follow-up to Ware’s excellent 2012 debut, Devotion. There was nothing safe about Devotion, exactly, but it often seemed so eager to please that Ware’s individuality got lost in the mix. This isn’t so on Tough Love, which contains unexpected quiet, patient moments to balance the record’s sheer pop (which is, thankfully, ample).
There was an immediacy on Devotion that’s missing from Tough Love, but that distance—both emotionally and sonically—is what makes the album work so well. The title track, with its faraway, echoing beats and Ware’s breathy delivery, provides the perfect introduction to an album so concerned with out-of-reach love. “When your heart becomes a million different pieces,” laments Ware, “That’s when you won’t be able to recognize this feeling.” On the next song, “You & I (Forever),” Ware calmly begs for intimacy: “I only want a lot,” she sings, as if lifelong companionship isn’t too much to ask for.
Somehow, this emotional distance never sounds cold or calculated. Tough Love’s best track, the simmering waltz “Say You Love Me” (co-written by U.K. pop phenomenon Ed Sheeran), contains more pathos and feeling than a full-blown vocal explosion could accomplish. Near the song’s end, the thumping beats suddenly incorporate clap-like clicks and clacks, and a choir-like group of background vocalists emerges from the fog. The song then immediately backs off, as if it knows overkill is imminent. It’s a measured, delicately plotted torch song, but the careful songwriting and production decisions by Ware, Sheeran, and her many collaborators don’t make it any less less thrilling.
Other highlights, like the sweet “Champagne Kisses,” the heartbreaking “Keep On Lying,” and the dark “Cruel” prove that Ware is committed to furthering the variety in her songs while maintaining the quality of her hazy pop. The only significant misstep on Tough Love is the plodding “Kind Of... Somtimes... Maybe,” which is just as hesitant and wishy-washy as its title suggests. In other words, it’s unlike the rest of Tough Love, which is sure-footed, propulsive, and breathtakingly confident.